In June 1997, fierce fighting broke out in Brazzaville, Congo, between government troops and a militia loyal to military strongman Dennis Sassou-Nguesso.
Sassou-Nguesso had ruled the country since 1979 and had relinquished power to President Pascal Lissouba following adoption of multiparty elections in 1992, coming third in the presidential elections behind Lissouba and Pascal Kolelas.
Sassou-Nguesso backed Lissouba in the ensuing run-off, but they fell out shortly, thereafter, and the three became fierce rivals, each controlling an ethnic militia.
The following year, Sassou-Nguesso and Kolelas rejected parliamentary results igniting a year long civil war, which ended with an internationally mediated peace deal.
The 1997 fighting was ignited by Lissouba’s Ninjas attempting to disarm Sassou-Nguesso’s 5,000 strong Cobras ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for July.
The militias fought it out for four months, with Kolela’s Cocoyes changing sides mid-stream after he was offered Prime Minister post by Lissouba.
The war ended with Sassou-Nguesso back in the saddle. He remains president to date.
Within days, Brazzaville emptied leaving the militias to slug it out.
Foreigners were evacuated. International relief agencies predicted a major humanitarian crisis.
Soon, the impeding crisis became a puzzle. The population of a sizeable city had vanished without trace. It was soon solved.
After a brief hiatus in the fighting following a truce that did not last, the residents began to trickle back carrying the usual rural goodies – bananas, yams, live chicken and so on.
This episode illuminates the true nature of the African State. Let’s take the international humanitarian agencies’ initial puzzlement.
It is understandable—the idea of the population of Brussels or Copenhagen doing a vanishing act is inconceivable.
Yet this sort of thing happens to many African cities every Christmas.
More poignantly, what if the 2008 post-election violence had gone on for a couple of weeks.
Starved of supplies, most of Nairobi’s residents would have retreated to “shags”.
And if it had gone on for months or more, a sizeable percentage would have settled down, never to return.
The African capital city looks like any other in the world, with all the edifices of power and wealth—extravagant presidential mansions, resplendent parliament buildings, ornate courthouses and a skyscraper or two. But its concrete solidity is deceptive.
If it were to vanish in an instant, society would not lose much. It has no treasure troves of art and artefacts, or architectural heritage like the Forbidden City, the Taj Mahal and the Sydney Opera House, and cultural life like Broadway or the Rio Carnival which are woven into our identity.
The vast majority of the African city’s residents have no stake, no property and perhaps most importantly, no social status.
In the city, most of us are anonymous nobodies. Our meaningful lives are in the village. There, everybody is somebody.
Several years ago, my work colleagues at an international organisation went for the funeral of a son of our office messenger, a long-serving self-effacing jolly gentleman named Joseph, who was always on hand to run their petty errands.
In Nairobi, Joseph lodged in a dilapidated city council single rooms on Jogoo Road.
They could not stop talking about their discovery when they got back.
Joseph was one of the wealthiest and most respected elders in his community. Even his farm and domestic employees in the village wore uniforms.
This sterile relationship between the African city and its dwellers is in fact a manifestation of a larger disconnect between the State and society, for more often than not, the State has very little sway outside the Capital and one or two big towns— if that.
The Government in Kinshasa has very little sway in Lubumbashi, and none at all in Goma.
The disconnect between the State and society is manifested in the domain of development, a disconnect that devolution is bringing to fore quite often these days.
The latest addition to my collection of examples is from Kwale where the county government recently purchased rescue boats.
I read that the boats have already rescued several fishermen who could have died at sea, including Tanzanian crew that had drifted of course.
Why had the national government not seen it worthwhile to set up an emergency rescue service for our fisherfolk? I will tell you why.
The safety of ordinary citizens as they go about their mundane daily lives is not development.
A development project would be about maximising the contribution of our marine resources to national economy.
Development is consultants, workshops, study tours, foreign investors, joint ventures, trawlers, licences, bribes, exports, revenues and so on.
Last week, CNN carried a feature entitled, Kenya’s Megaprojects: What can $50 billion do for a country.
The feature consists of 13 images billed as our transformational infrastructure projects with “a projected cost of roughly $50 billion.”
It’s part of a government media blitz to bury the Eurobond story by making the missing US$2 billion look like small change that could easily have been absorbed into these projects.
But the images are also a window to the minds of our State elite.
The images include artists’ impressions of SGR Mombasa and Voi train stations, the ubiquitous Konza Technocity images, a Lappset oil pipeline that is unlikely to ever be built, and the JKIA Greenfield Terminal that is currently on ice, but which alas, according to the feature, is set to open in 2017.
Those are the images that are there. There are no farms—neat rows of crops dotted with sprinklers, even Galana does not make the cut, no livestock, no hospital, school building or campus, no residential housing— an upgraded Kibera perhaps, or that quintessential African market bustling with life and colour.
In short, we are not there. The only social amenity that makes the cut is the proposed Two Rivers shopping mall under construction near the UN Complex in Nairobi —where the only ordinary folk ever likely to set foot there are the workers.
The idea that structures can transform a country is a delusion of an intellectually and morally bankrupt State elite.
Its preoccupation, besides stealing, is how to impress upon Europeans that they too have arrived. What we are looking at is inferiority complex. Hollow men.
Societies are transformed by institutions. Singapore and Seoul are not what they are because their governments built skyscrapers and metro-rails.
It is because their political elites figured out how not to settle political scores with private militias.
Congo-Brazzaville was one of the pre-multiparty era success stories with double our per capita income in 1990 and 60 per cent urbanisation (ours was 17 per cent).
But it had no political institutions and it is not building any.
It is held together by the force of a despot, who has been furiously “rebuilding” the country—airports, highways and a new stadium for the 2015 All African Games.
But he is now mooting a change of the ceasefire constitution to run for a third term in presidential elections due this year.
The militia may be back in the streets of Brazzaville before the year is out.
We too were a pre-multiparty island of peace and development. The 2008 post-election violence exploded the myth.
Lacking the leadership wherewithal—intellectual and moral— to correct the mistakes of the past— tribalism, greed, exclusion, historical injustices—our State elite reverted to type, to delusions of grandeur.
Latching on the Africa rising narrative, it managed to persuade a gullible middle class— if one may call it that— that megastructures can build a nation, that once we see bullet trains whistling past, our chests will swell and eyes well with patriotism.
What can $50 billion dollars do to the country? Mortgage it. It would cost more than a third of our tax revenue and half our annual export earnings to pay interest on it.
Spending it would double the price of everything. And half of it, if not more would be stolen.
Its no wonder that common folk see our State elites for what they are—a fraud.
We have plenty of experience. At independence, they promised utopia. Undelivered. Multiparty came and they promised democracy and good governance. Undelivered.
NARC came and promised ‘yote yawezekana,” and then took us to the brink. The Jubilee promised digital development, and took corruption to new levels.
A new generation of Kenyans is now learning its political lessons. Digital development was never going to be delivered (even digital freedom is not guaranteed).
They are about to learn that the State and the city are not to be embraced— they are to be survived. In Nairobi as in Brazzaville, we travel light, and with an exit plan.